Let’s talk about sex. Now, if you’re like me and grew up listening to Salt-N-Pepa, you probably can’t read that sentence without tagging on, “Ba-by…” (And if you’re really like me, you can’t read that sentence without digressing from whatever you’re doing in order to rap the entire song.) But regardless of what you were listening to in the early 1990s, you probably can’t read — or hear — “let’s talk about sex” without getting a little nervous. So let’s talk about sex. (Argh. Do we have to?) Yes. We absolutely must.
I have a vivid memory of driving in the car with my mom and little brother one day when that Salt-N-Pepa song came on the radio. This was back in the mid-1990s and I was starting to go through puberty. My mom decided that she would take the opportunity to start a conversation with me, so she very casually asked, “Do you know what they’re saying?” or something along those lines. I panicked. “No!” I yelled at the top of my lungs as I lunged forward to change the radio station. It was too late for me.
My mom is by all accounts a smart, kind, thoughtful person, and her strategy was similar to that of most well-meaning parents I know. For most of my childhood, she tried to shield me from any media that she deemed inappropriate for my age. Mostly, that meant I wasn’t allowed to watch television or movies that might inspire me to ask questions about sex. I went through puberty early — it was pretty rough, actually — but my mom deftly adjusted her plan for my newfound adolescence. She showed me how to use a sanitary pad. She read me books with diagrams of breasts and fallopian tubes. She told me that boys might start to pay attention to me and that if I ever had any questions, I should come to her.
But, as I said, it was too late for me. I already knew sex was bad and wrong. I knew there was something deep-down icky about it, especially for girls. I knew that it was okay to giggle about kissing boys, but that no one could ever know about how sometimes I rubbed a pillow between my legs before I fell asleep. Or how sometimes I imagined what it would feel like for a boy to touch me under my shirt. When my classmates eventually labeled me the school “slut” after my first boyfriend spread rumors about me, I knew to be ashamed. I hardly knew how sex worked, but I knew that “sluts” were worthless.
I knew all those things by the time I finished puberty, and maybe you did too. And neither of us was a preteen girl today, in 2016. For my mom back in the 1990s, the task of protecting a child from inappropriate material was pretty daunting. (My older sister and I did eventually break the code to unlock our TV so we could watch “Singled Out” after school.) But today, it’s straight up impossible. Awesome resources like Common Sense Media can help parents make wise choices about what they allow their children to see — but what parents allow a child to see is just a small subset of all the things that child actually sees.
By extension, we can make the decision not to teach them about sex, but kids are curious and they will learn. They’ll just learn misinformation from their friends like we did. And they’ll learn all the Hollywood myths from movies like we did. But they will also learn as they watch and share sexy social media posts. And they will learn when they stumble upon or — brace yourself — seek out all different types of online porn. (Side note: I really cannot imagine what it must be like to have to go through puberty always one mouse-click away from everything that anyone has ever found sexy. The internet has really changed the game.)
But even the least sexually precocious children will still watch commercials for fast food chains that send a very clear message about what it means to be a woman. They will still see pop-up ads on their devices for a certain clothing brand that, despite being a clothing brand, features models draped seductively over the backs of elephants and doing all manner of other unreasonable activities without clothes on. We can’t stop this kind of media from getting to kids, but we can prepare them for it by talking about sex in a straightforward, comfortable way right from the start.
One way to normalize it is to have frequent, low-stakes, age-appropriate conversations and to answer any questions they have honestly and without shame. Then they’ll go into the world armed with accurate information and a healthy attitude about sex, able to think critically about the messages they receive not just from the media, but also from their peers. As Lea Grover puts it, we’re not doing kids any favors by lying to them about sex; rather, we steer them in a healthy direction by “telling them the truth, the whole truth, and letting it sink in so they can make their own good choices.”
When you think about it, a lot of what makes adolescence so horrible for so many people is the humiliation and fear that come from having no idea what the hell is going on sexually. But it doesn’t have to continue on that way. We don’t have to burden our kids with the same baggage.
I have learned a lot from mothers who are able to put this concept into practice. What it takes is a commitment to overcoming that uncomfortable feeling that bubbles up when a child asks bluntly about sex. Instead of panicking, treat it as an invitation to model what it looks like to talk about sex straightforwardly as a healthy, important, and fun part of many adults’ lives. Or when we realize there’s a sex scene coming up in the movie we’re watching as a family, we can use it as an opportunity to start a conversation later. We don’t have to go around bringing up sex out of thin air at all times; we can use the media our kids are interacting with anyway to do some of the work for us. Sex and issues related to it — like consent, body autonomy, and rumor-spreading — will definitely come up.
When that happens, we only have two options: We can either continue the absurd tradition that most of us were raised in ourselves, or we can end the awkward cycle.
Let’s end the cycle. Let’s not raise another generation of people terrified of something that is basic to the human experience. Let’s talk about sex.